Revisited Myth #11: Early pioneers kept their clothing in chests rather than wardrobes because wardrobes were taxed as an extra room.

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There we were, touring beautiful Zion National Park in Utah with an energetic park ranger when I heard this blooper. The ranger told us that Utah’s early Mormon pioneers lived in one-room cabins and didn’t have wardrobes for their clothing because wardrobes were taxed as if they were a second room. Shunning taxes and wardrobes, they put their clothing in chests or trunks instead.

Alert readers will recognize this as a variant of the closet tax (Myth #1), but I checked the statement carefully to see if there was even a remote sliver of truth to it, as is sometimes the case with history myths. I searched the early Territorial codes from 1847 to 1888 as well as the current Utah code, which are all online, without finding any mention of the word wardrobe or extra room. Then I posed the question to the Research Center at the Utah State Archives and Utah State History, and Heidi Orchard very kindly replied. 

The Compiled Laws of Utah 1888, she wrote, specifically exempt each family from being taxes on any “Wearing apparel, beds, bedding. stoves, chairs, etc. not exceeding one hundred dollars,” and that would include furniture like wardrobes. I was unlikely that any pioneer living in a one-room house would have owned more than $100 worth of Stuff, so they would have paid no such taxes. A further search of the tax assessment records for Salt Lake County beginning in 1853 did include “household furniture” as a taxable item, and that would include chests and trunks as well as wardrobes. A few years later, though, household furniture was not longer taxable at all.

So yes, for a few years, household furniture worth more than $100 total was taxed in Utah Territory. But not wardrobes per se, and certainly not because they were considered a second room. Ms. Orchard and her colleagues called the ranger’s statement a “recycled fact.” I call it a history myth. You never know when you will stumble across a new one! 

2 Responses to Revisited Myth #11: Early pioneers kept their clothing in chests rather than wardrobes because wardrobes were taxed as an extra room.

  1. lara jane says:

    I’ve always heard that the tax is for the fact that a closet makes it a “bedroom,” not that the closet itself was taxed as a room.

    So if a room has a built-in closet = taxable bedroom.

    A room with a freestanding wardrobe for clothing = not a bedroom.

    This makes little sense at any rate, because why would anyone install closets knowing their tax rate would be higher? We’d all have freestanding wardrobes! 😉

  2. Andrew says:

    While I will admit this is anecdotal from a British expat, he maintains there is existing British tax law counts number of rooms into the equation, and they avoid closets to this day as that would count as an additional room. The myth might have crossed ‘the pond’ but it sounds like there is a sliver of truth to it.

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